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Authors: Nancy Kress

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BOOK: Probability Space
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He smiled at her through the pieces of beard. “I don’t know. Maybe they’re afraid there might be side effects to their people.”

The girl said, “Maybe we’re afraid of side effects, too. Maybe our artifact isn’t even in the Solar System.”

“General Stefanak says it is, protecting us.”

The spy-or-reporter gave a short bark of laughter. “There are no side effects, young woman.”

Alva, flushing an unattractive maroon, turned to him. “How do you know?”

“General Stefanak says so.”

“But have the physicists said so? Has Dr. Capelo?”

But this was getting too close to criticism of General Stefanak. The girl’s mother said harshly, “Really, Alva, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mr. Peltier, you’ve been in the army. I can tell from the way you carry yourself. Where do you think our general has hidden the Protector Artifact for maximum benefit to us all?”

Kaufman dabbed his lips with his napkin. He had no more idea than anyone else where Stefanak’s artifact was. On the other hand, Kaufman had a good idea where the Faller artifact actually was, but that information was highly classified. None of it, however, was his concern any longer. He had retired from the army.

“I think,” he said in his calm, authoritative voice, “that the most likely place for General Stefanak to have put the artifact is in the Belt.” When challenged, always give the majority answer. It’s the least conspicuous.

“I told you so!” the beautiful woman crowed. Her daughter looked dose to tears. And why, Kaufman wondered, did such a conspicuously genemod beauty have such a plain daughter? Why hadn’t the girl, too, been engineered? Maybe the mother had been afraid of competition. People were endlessly perverse.

“Wherever it is,” the shabby man said, “it’s Stefanak’s trump card. As long as he has control of it, no one will dare remove him from power.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said the older woman, “there are a lot of crazies out there. What if some terrorist group, people even crazier than the antiwar people, found and seized the Protector Artifact? They could destroy the Fallers on their own say-so. In fact, they could destroy the Solar System, or threaten to do it, for ransom.”

Alva, despite her sulky tearfulness, had been studying the woman. Now she said abruptly, “I recognize you. You write holo thrillers! You’re Ruth Pomeroy!”

The older woman smiled modestly, and the conversation swerved to holo thrillers, writing, and actors, none of whom Kaufman had ever heard until the bearded youngster said, “Do you know what I heard? Just last month, Magdalena was a passenger on this very ship.”

“She was!” said Ruth Pomeroy. “Now there’s a woman I’d like to write a thriller about.”

“Well, if you wanted someone in your thriller to murder Magdalena,” said the man who was either a journalist or a spy, “you wouldn’t have any shortage of suspects. She has more enemies than General Stefanak.”

“Whom,” Ruth Pomeroy said daintily, “I understand she knows extremely well.”

“Oh, surely not anymore,” protested the beauty with the emeralds. “The woman must be at least sixty. And looks it.”

“No, she doesn’t,” the bearded man said. “That body!”

“Who’s Magdalena?” blurted Alva.

The journalist/spy laughed. “‘
Sic transit gloria mundi
.’”

Alva’s mother said primly, “Magdalena is no one you need to know about.”

Deliberately the girl turned to the bearded man. “Who is she, please?”

He wasn’t impressed by maternal dictates. “Magdalena started as a porn star, way before your time. They say she was born in a slum and clawed her way out. She was unbelievably sexy. But she stopped making holos a long time ago.”

“And became even more notorious than in her holo days,” said Journalist/Spy. “Not a model for a good life, young lady. Magdalena married into Stefanak’s government, a man who was eventually executed for treason. But she never even stood trial. She inherited her husband’s fortune and spent her time both investing the money and cozying up to whoever had power. When the war started, she got even richer off black-market military supplies. Maybe you know something about that, Colonel Peltier.”

“Not my area, I’m afraid,” Kaufman said, although he did indeed know something about it. He’d never actually seen Magdalena’s porn holos, nor learned much about her earlier marriages and money deals. But in the current world of wartime government contracts, covert intelligence, corporate collusion, space-travel control, and military theft, Magdalena was a major force. No one knew how much of her reputation was truth and how much titillating exaggeration. The only verifiable truth was that Magdalena—the single name was all she used—constantly grew richer, more powerful, more dangerous.

Alva said wistfully, “Was she really so beautiful?”

“Yes,” rhapsodized the bearded youth, who had obviously not yet learned to avoid dwelling on one woman’s looks to another woman. “Black hair, huge blue eyes, the face of an angel. And that body—you’ve never seen such breasts or such a—”

“That will do,” Ruth Pomeroy said coldly. “Genetic combinations can certainly bring strange results.” Pointedly she turned the conversation back to General Stefanak and the artifact.

Kaufman sat eating his excellent dinner and considering what had been said. None of it was new to him, of course. Stefanak himself had told Kaufman, the only time they’d met, what he intended. Actually, he had told Tom Capelo.

“What are you going to do with my artifact?”

Stefanak had smiled at the pronoun, which Kaufman knew had been deliberate on Capelo’s part, but hadn’t commented on it. “We’re going to take it to the Solar System, install it somewhere secure and classified, and activate setting prime eleven, thereby protecting all of the Solar System from Faller attack
.”

“I see. So you won’t take it to the Faller system, activate it at setting prime thirteen, and fry their entire home system?”

“You’ve told us that’s not possible without disastrously affecting the fabric of spacetime itself.”

“What if I’m wrong?”

“We hope you’ll continue to refine your theory, becoming more sure.”

“What if I’m wrong about what setting prime eleven does?”


Sarne answer,” Stefanak had said
.

Had Tom Capelo continued to “refine his theory”? Was that what had gotten him kidnapped: some new aspect of his revolutionary physics model that carried implications Stefanak hadn’t liked? Stefanak had greeted Capelo by cheerfully saying he hadn’t understood a single thing about Capelo’s hypothetical probability force. But, then, there were only about a dozen people in the Solar System who did understand it.

“You look very thoughtful, Mr. Peltier,” the genemod beauty said flirtatiously. “May the rest of us know your thoughts?”

“I’m thinking of what they might bring us for dessert,” Kaufman said. “I hope it’s better than that cream cake at lunch.”

*   *   *

The
Cascade of Stars
was cleared without incident to go through Space Tunnel #1. Passports were checked, cargo inspected, data filed by the Martian Space Tunnel Administration. The administration had done all this during the stop at Titan, and now it did it all over again. The administration kept close control of the tunnels. They were the reason Mars now ruled the Solar System. Mars had gotten to them first.

The space tunnels had been discovered sixty years ago. A flexible, mappable network of wormholes, they made the galaxy into a giant instantaneous bus system. All you had to do was get your bus to the nearest tunnel, drive it through, and you emerged at another station at the edge of another star system. Double back through the same tunnel and you emerged at your place of origin—unless it was your craft’s first time through a tunnel. Then you emerged in the same place as the directly previous craft. The bus system could reroute its vehicles.

Some systems had three or even four tunnels in orbit around them, although Sol had only one. Evidently whatever long-vanished race had constructed the tunnels had not considered Sol an important nexus.

The discovery of Space Tunnel #1 had rocked the struggling solar civilization. New disciplines sprang up: xenobiology, interstellar treasure hunting, holo movies shot under pink or yellow skies. Serious thinkers pointed out that humankind was scarcely ready to colonize the stars, haying solved none of its problems at home. Nobody listened. The rich flourished on the new investments; the poor remained poor; Earth went on lurching from one ecological tragedy to another. Everything was the same, and nothing was.

The first years were filled with triumphs and disasters. Experimentation proved that a ship—or any other object—put through a space tunnel for the first time went to wherever the directly previous ship had gone. A ship that had gone through a tunnel and then went through it from the other side was automatically returned to its starting point, no matter how many other ships had used the tunnel in the meantime. Somehow—that most operative word in human understanding of tunnel technology—the tunnel “remembered” where each individual ship had entered tunnel space. It was an interstellar “Chutes and Ladders” composed of all chutes.

After fifty-six years, science still knew almost nothing about how space tunnels actually worked. Not even the work of Dr. Thomas Capelo had helped much. The physical objects, panels floating in space in the general shape of a doughnut, were completely impenetrable. The science was too alien. The best guess was that the panels created a field of macro-level object entanglement, analogous to the quantum entanglement that permitted one particle to affect its paired counterpart regardless of distance, thus eliminating any spatial dimension to the universe by treating it as a single point. But this was merely a guess. Achieving entanglement for an object the size of a warship—let alone
controlling
the phenomenon—seemed unthinkable. Yet there the tunnels were.

The
Cascade of Stars
waited until the Space Tunnel #1 configuration was changed to open on Herndon System, which was accomplished by sending a flyer back from Herndon toward Sol. Several other ships waited in line as well. When it was her turn, the
Cascade of Stars
maneuvered into the tunnel. First-time tunnelers gathered on the observation deck, but there was nothing to feel, and not much to see. The stars of the Solar System, the odd floating panels of the tunnel on all sides, and then the stars of Herndon System. Disappointment was audible: hmmnnnnnn.

A few hours were enough to traverse Herndon System space from Tunnel #1 to Tunnel #32. Again, Mars Administration checked passports and cargo, but much more cursorily. Four systems later, in orbit around Tunnel #389, administration was still checking, even though no one but Amish colonists was going down to New Canaan, and no one at all was coming back up.

It would take the
Cascade of Stan’s
shuttles several days to land six thousand Amish. Nearly all the other passengers had disembarked in earlier systems. Kaufman passed only anxious, black-clad people laden with bundles on his way to the vehicle bay.

The security chief had arranged the timing. Only his people were present. Marbet was packed. She and Kaufman climbed into one of the two flyers, which would be reported to Berrington Corporation as lost due to mechanical failure. The craft had been extensively, expensively rebuilt. Somewhere between a flyer and a shuttle, it performed as well as neither one. But it could go, more slowly than a flyer, through space, and it could land, more roughly than a shuttle, on the surface of a planet. It had cost Marbet a price that made even her blink.

“You sure you can fly this thing?” she said lightly to Kaufman.

“Since cadet training. Are you glad to be freed from solitary confinement?”

“Yes and no. It was very peaceful, Lyle. Although I missed you.”

“Can you speak fluent World yet?”

“We’ll find out.” She smiled, and he pushed down his misgivings and flew away from the
Cascade of Stars
.

New Canaan System had two tunnels. Kaufman flew through the other one, which gave onto Caligula System. This was a remote military base, one tunnel away from World. Kaufman’s flyer was hailed as soon as it emerged from the tunnel.

“Identification,” the patrol ship said. Kaufman noted its prominent weapons.

“Flight #6754B, civilian, from Mars via posted tunnel route. Aboard: Colonel Eric James Peltier, SADA, retired, and Ms. Ellen Fineman, citizen. Husband and wife. Citizen numbers to follow.” Eric James Peltier and his wife Ellen Fineman were very recently dead in the South American Hegemony, which had the faultiest reporting of any member of the Solar Alliance Defense Council. Especially now. General Stefanak was not popular in the Hegemony. Kaufman had no passport for Ellen/Marbet, but this far out from Sol, military usually relied more on verified forwarded flight approvals than on individual civilian passports. Kaufman held his breath.

Silence. Then a voice said on the comlink, “Your flight is filed, Colonel Peltier. However, orders are no flights to World System. I don’t know how you got approved this far.”

Money
. “I don’t understand! We have approvals!”

“Please wait, Colonel, while I check this. What is the purpose of your mission?”

“Personal. My wife is a cousin to Dr. Ann Sikorski, left on the planet World during the last approved scientific mission.” Effective lies stay as close to the truth as possible.

“Checking…”

“Soldier, is the World System proscribed?” Kaufman said.

“No.”

“And are all approvals in order?”

“Yes, sir,” the voice said, in automatic response to the authority in Kaufman’s voice.

“Then I don’t see the difficulty.”

“My orders are to let no ship through this tunnel.”

He wasn’t going to budge. Kaufman went to his second tactic. “Please refer my request to your commanding officer.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kaufman turned off the comlink. “Get comfortable, Marbet. We’re going to be here for some time.”

BOOK: Probability Space
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